For two decades, Portlanders have said Chinatown isn’t Chinatown anymore.
Old Town’s Chinatown, founded as “New Chinatown” in the 1870s, is nonetheless one of the oldest in the country. But lately most of the city’s Chinese population, and most of its best Chinese food, has moved to the new New Chinatown on 82nd Avenue (otherwise known as the “Jade District”).
But the history stays here, next to the Hip Sing Association building and the massive sign announcing the chop suey of Hung Far Low, Taishanese dialect for “almond blossom fragrance.” And for years, Chinatown has seemed impervious to change, its oldest restaurants standing as eternal monuments to mid-century American ideas of Chinese food.
But this June, as the Hi-Lo hotel becomes the second boutique hotel to open in Old Town alongside the Society, it seems that even Chinatown might get an update.
This month is Cluster Feeding Month at WW, where we investigate the zones in Portland where various cultures’ cuisines hang together in tight proximity. And so we decided to eat at every Chinese restaurant that still remains in Chinatown, eating specialty items where relevant. If available, we always ordered the American-Chinese classics of General Tso’s chicken, Mongolian beef and hot-and-sour soup.
What did we discover? Chinatown is still Chinatown, now and forever.
House of Louie
331 NW Davis St., 503-228-9898.
House of Louie has long been the plush-boothed Denny’s of Portland American-Chinese, its door framed in a grand and kitschified circle. As nearby Chinese restaurants closed, House served the third-best, and then the second-best, and now the only dim sum in Portland’s old Chinatown, with glutinously oversticky dumplings and rice noodles, and sugar-sweet char siu. But hating Denny’s is silly—it’s like hating an elephant ear at the fair. At House of Louie, the trick is to avoid things requiring finesse, and probably also vegetables. Get the General Tso’s chicken, a bread bomb thick with sugar and sesame and just a tangy hint of spice—which goes down better with the slightly singed chili oil on each table. The hot-and-sour soup is lightly sour, sneezy with white pepper and corn-starch syrupy—and if it’s not great, it still feels as classic as a greasy burger at the diner.
The Republic Cafe
222 NW 4th Ave., 503-226-4388.
Two of Portland’s oldest restaurants are Chinese-owned. One is Huber’s, which was taken over by its Chinese chef, Jim Louie. And the other is the family-owned Republic Cafe, founded in 1922. The Republic is home to perhaps the most beautiful seedy bar in Portland, the Ming Lounge, a red-lit palace of baroque Orientalism dominated by a pagoda on one wall. The oddly cramped dining room is hung with floral wall tapestries and a mural that looks like it was unearthed from an ancient tomb. The menu is similarly ancient: It is, perhaps, the only
place in Portland where chop suey and egg foo young are still considered delicacies, with eight variations of each. Sure, the place has seen better days (on our visit, the door had been smashed in, and covered with particle board) but almost nowhere in Portland is the distant past so present. The egg foo young ($7.50) is like an old man’s heart—full of egg and gravy. You couldn’t call it good, but it is a profound comfort. The hot-and-sour soup and General Tso’s chicken can be safely ignored, but the Republic serves the most classic rendition of Mongolian beef ($11.95) in Portland, a massive platter that is all green onion bittersweetness and cellophane crunch, under strips of beef.
238 NW 4th Ave., 503-228-1688.
If you go to Golden Horse, make sure you have nowhere to be. On our visit, the clientele was all retirees, and neither the food nor the ordering nor the payment happened quickly. Nobody else seemed to mind: One guy read the paper, and one looked at his phone, while three women rounded off their third pot of tea. The beef was gristly, and the chicken was, too. The salt-and-pepper squid was fishy. The hot and sour soup tasted like molasses.
18 NW 4th Ave., 503-223-3838.
Good Taste is the kind of bare-bones, no-nonsense, tight-tabled Cantonese barbecue spot where you’re greeted at the door by a side of pork and a neat row of ducks hanging from meat hooks above metal trays of chopped pork. It feels a little dusty, but is always full of Cantonese speakers. There is an American-Chinese menu, which we felt somewhat guilty ordering from, with perfunctory bell-pepper-and-onion Mongolian beef, not to mention a hot-and-sour soup ruined by the vinegar. But as always at Good Taste, what you want is the Super Bowl A: noodle soup filled with eight wontons, chopped duck and barbecue pork. It’s a barbecue sampler in soup form, and one of Chinatown’s simplest pleasures.
310 NW Davis St., 503-227-8855, redrobeteahouse.com.
Since opening in 2011, Red Robe has been one of the finest teahouses in town, pouring teas from complex Da Hong Pao (literally, “big red robe”) to beautifully smoky roasted Tie Guan Yin. If you’re lucky on your visit, gracious owner Pearl Zhang will perform the Gongfu tea ritual at your table, rinsing and sealing and short-steeping your tea for maximum flavor without bitterness. Until now, I’d never tried the food. That was a mistake. The hot pot ($28 for two people) is now my favorite in town—a subtle, aromatic, vegetable-thick broth without the bathwater tepidity or angry spice of most versions. Make sure to include both wonton and dumpling in your hot pot order. Your receipt will arrive with free almond cookies, a piece of good fortune much better than any future you’d find in a folded factory shell.
By Matthew Korfhage